On July 3rd, 1973, David Bowie sat backstage at the Hammersmith Odeon theater in London, waiting. Assistants, makeup artists and costume designers were preparing him for the most anticipated performance of his career: the final date of a triumphant first world tour with his extraordinary band, the Spiders From Mars. As he waited, hundreds gathered into the theater’s auditorium. Many of them were followers — they dressed like Bowie, in daring and glamorous outfits; they cut and dyed their hair to duplicate his shock-red mane; they made their faces pallid, and painted their eyes with radiant shimmer. These were the people, the outcasts, whom Bowie spoke to in “Changes,” when he sang, “And these children that you spit on/As they try to change their worlds/Are immune to your consultations/They’re quite aware what they’re going through.”
Two years before, few attending this event knew who David Bowie was. He had been singing and playing rock & roll since 1962, and making quaint and eccentric albums since 1967, to little attention. His progress had proved so fitful that he wondered if he wanted to continue with it. He saw himself, he said, as an actor; he wanted to use his face and body, his voice and songs to play roles, outlandish ones. Then, in 1971, he realized he could combine it all — music and theater — into one character: Ziggy Stardust, an otherworldly being who came to Earth to save it, but instead found rock & roll; who sang about change and pain, and played the music better than anybody; whose vanity soared out of range, and who had the charisma to fuck anybody he desired, woman or man; and whose aspirations delivered him to ruin, his best purposes unfinished. That character had made David Bowie famous, and it formed an audience and community around his singularity.
This night, though, David Bowie would undo Ziggy Stardust. Years later he said, “I couldn’t decide whether I was writing the characters, or whether the characters were writing me, or whether we were all one and the same.” He was afraid this confusion would lead to madness, and there was nothing he feared more. When he left the Odeon that night, he intended to leave Ziggy Stardust behind, but he would also leave behind the most important deed of his life: He had provided a model of courage to millions who had never been embraced by a popular-culture hero before. He helped set others free in unexpected ways, even if he couldn’t do the same for himself.
David Bowie had been born with a need to move on. It was how he would cope with a history that might otherwise never have been survived. His mother, Margaret Burns (known as Peggy), was the first of six children born to a troubled family in Kent County, England. Three of her sisters suffered from mental illness, and Peggy herself, some thought, might be borderline. Before World War II, Peggy entered into a love affair, and gave birth to a son, Terence Burns, in 1937. (She also had a daughter after a second affair, but gave the child up for adoption.) Peggy was 33 when she met Haywood Stenton Jones, a married man with a daughter of his own. Haywood, known as John, had run a London music hall that failed, costing him his inheritance. When he met Peggy, John was working for a children’s charity organization, and stayed devoted to that job for the rest of his life. In 1946, he divorced his wife, marrying Peggy soon after. On January 8th, 1947, their only child, David Robert Jones, was born in Brixton.
Peggy’s first son, Terry, lived with the Jones family off and on into David’s adulthood. Peggy doted on David; she carried him on a pillow as a small child and let him wear her makeup. But Terry was somebody that she and John merely provided for. David, though, loved and looked up to Terry, and it was Terry who showed David the most warmth. In 1956, Terry joined the British Royal Air Force for two years. When he came back, he was different. “Something had happened to Terry while he was serving in the Royal Air Force in Aden during one of Britain’s last colonial wars, and whatever it was, it had disturbed him profoundly,” Bowie’s ex-wife, Angela, wrote in her 1993 autobiography. Terry grew easily upset and didn’t care about his appearance. He would be diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic.
At the same time, Terry proved the first important influence on Bowie: He introduced him to 19th-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s view of will; to the writings of the Beats — including Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs; to the work of Bowie’s future friend Christopher Isherwood, who wrote about a life of sexual freedom; and to jazz of all sorts. David tried to return the favor. In 1966, he took his half brother to see a Cream concert in Bromley. “On their way home after the gig,” wrote David Buckley in Strange Fascination: David Bowie — The Definitive Story, “Terry became increasingly agitated until he fell to his knees and began pawing the road. He could see cracks in the tarmac and flames rising up, as if from the underworld.”
For years after, Bowie worried that his own psyche might shatter. In 1993, Bowie said, “One puts oneself through such psychological damage in trying to avoid the threat of insanity. You start to approach the very thing you’re scared of.… There were too many suicides [in my family] for my liking.… As long as I could put those psychological excesses into my music and into my work, I could always be throwing it off.”
In 1956, David’s father brought his nine-year-old son a present that would help afford some transcendence over familial dread: “Tutti Frutti,” the explosive first hit single by U.S. rock & roll singer and boogie-woogie pianist Little Richard. “My heart nearly burst with excitement,” Bowie later said. “[‘Tutti Frutti’] filled the room with energy and color and outrageous defiance. I had heard God.” After that, David wanted to do what Richard and Elvis Presley had done: He wanted to place himself before an audience as something they had never seen before. It was a way to remake himself.
By the early Sixties, young David Jones was spending hours in record stores, searching for the newest music, and joined R&B bands with a friend, George Underwood — the Kon-Rads, Davie Jones and the Lower Third, and Davie Jones and the King Bees — in which he sang and played alto and tenor saxophone. There’s a photograph from 1963 that depicts Bowie posed with the instrument, sitting atop the Kon-Rads’ bass drum, an uncanny preview of the famous figure that was to come. In his eyes, however, you see a singularity that marked him. In 1962, in an argument over a girlfriend, Underwood hit his friend in the left eye, causing terrible injury. Bowie was left with a permanently dilated pupil, and with eyes that appear to be of different colors. As a result, one of Bowie’s eyes would forever be looking ahead, flitting, while the other seemed to stare back into him, as if to measure his distance from the past.
Bowie was in and out of R&B and mod groups through much of the decade, but he didn’t truly have a band temperament. He tried to take over most of the outfits he joined, and when the music didn’t thrive, he believed the bands failed him. By the time he was 16, he was signed briefly to Decca Records. But David Jones saw himself as somebody who should stand apart. Then he met Ken Pitt, a man who saw him the same way.
Pitt was a sophisticated and well-rounded music manager. He had represented flamboyant pianist Liberace and British beat band Manfred Mann, and he’d promoted one of Bob Dylan’s tours of England. After seeing David perform in April 1966 at London’s Marquee Club — where he sang “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” a song made famous by Judy Garland — Pitt believed he’d found somebody with the magnetism of Frank Sinatra. He became David’s manager and won him a solo contract. Pitt also invited David to share his home, rescuing him from Peggy’s ceaseless harping, and from the tormenting atmosphere that existed between his parents and his half brother, Terry. Some have suggested that Pitt’s interest in his new housemate was sexual as well. Pitt denied this, though he later wrote, “David derived comfort from leaving off his clothes, sometimes sitting cross-legged on the floor encircled by blaring hi-fi speakers, sometimes loping around the flat naked, his long, weighty penis swaying from side to side like the pendulum of a grandfather clock.”
Pitt told David Jones he could no longer use the name David Jones, due to the popularity of another British singer, Davy Jones, who would go on to join the Monkees. The thought of a name change appealed to David’s interest in overhauling his identity and asserting a new self. He liked Mick Jagger’s surname – it suggested danger, a dagger — and he was a fan of Richard Widmark’s portrayal of American pioneer Jim Bowie, who had been famous for his prowess with a knife. David settled on Bowie for his new identification. He believed that the surname suggested cutting through to deeper truths.
Bowie found in Pitt’s home books of the erotic and grotesque art of Egon Schiele. Pitt introduced him to illustrator Aubrey Beardsley and the 19th-century Decadent writers, such as Oscar Wilde. Bowie was particularly drawn to The Picture of Dorian Gray, the story of a vain young man who exploited and then discarded people. But Pitt’s most lasting contribution to Bowie’s artistry came in late 1966. In December, when Pitt returned from a trip to New York, he brought with him an advance copy of the first album by the Velvet Underground, a band that had emerged under the imprimatur of pop-art-movement leader Andy Warhol. Bowie was enthralled: The Velvets were playing music that was beautiful and cacophonous at the same time, and the group’s frontman, Lou Reed, was writing about people on the verge of desperate experiences. “All I wanted to do was write songs that somebody like me could relate to,” Reed later said. “I got off on the Beatles and all that stuff, but why not have a little something for the kids in the back row?”
The Velvet Underground gave Bowie new permissions to explore dark spaces, but his own recordings wouldn’t reflect that epiphany for another five years. His first album, David Bowie, released in June 1967, proved a showcase of eclectic influences, the heavily lyrical French chanson style of Jacques Brel and the polished show-tune balladry of singer and composer Anthony Newley. The effect, though, was too diffuse to stand out in the psychedelic late Sixties.
But the album attracted the attention of Lindsay Kemp, an abstract mime artist who was also a dance instructor. Under Kemp’s tutelage, Bowie learned how to move onstage, how to use dark lighting to help reveal a song’s meanings and how to apply a mime’s whiteface makeup, as well as about such theatrical styles as Japanese Kabuki and Jean Genet and the Theatre of the Absurd. Bowie later said of Kemp, “His day-to-day life was the most theatrical thing I had ever seen, ever. It was everything I thought Bohemia probably was. I joined the circus.” Bowie became Kemp’s lover; Kemp took the affair seriously, Bowie did not. When Kemp discovered that Bowie was also sleeping with the woman who was Kemp’s show designer, the teacher slashed his wrists before the next evening’s performance, then went onstage, bleeding through the bandages that had been wrapped around him at the infirmary. Bowie danced alongside him, and cried. Kemp later said that he felt he had contributed much to his former student’s later brand of rock theater. “Bowie got it all from me,” he said. “His dresses, his hair and his makeup.”
Bowie was adventurous and ruthless in using what came his way. But he would later say that what resulted from all this — his eventual apotheosis as a rock & roll star — was lamentable and damaging. “My commitment certainly has never been… [to] this crazy and filthy rock circus…,” he told Melody Maker in 1977. “I should not have been in it.” It was a pained protest, and an ungracious one. Rock & roll would uplift Bowie, and in turn he remade the movement’s meanings, audience and history. It was a feat that almost cost him his mind.
David Bowie has often been described as disconnected, even by himself. In 1972, he told Timothy Ferris in ROLLING STONE, “I’m a…very cold person. I can’t feel strongly. I get so numb. I find I’m walking around numb. I’m a bit of an iceman.” It’s an interesting claim, given the passions he inspired in so many of those who thought they were close to him, including Angela Barnett, the woman who changed his world more than anybody. At first, he called her “the moon and the stars.” Later, he would resent her more than anything else in his life.
Angela Barnett was born in Cyprus, in the fall of 1950, the daughter of a mining engineer and his wife. She lived with her family on the island during a period of Cypriot revolt against British colonization in the 1950s. Angela had been raised as a Roman Catholic, and her father, George Barnett, insisted she promise to remain a virgin until she was 18. When Angela entered into a love affair with another woman at college, she felt she had kept the promise. When an administrator confronted her over the sexual relationship, Angela panicked and jumped from a fourth-story window.
By the late 1960s, Angela was living in London, where she briefly dated Calvin Lee, an A&R man at Mercury Records. Lee was also fond of Bowie, and in May 1969, he took Angela and the singer to a King Crimson concert at the Speakeasy. Angela later wrote in her autobiography, Backstage Passes: Life on the Wild Side With David Bowie, “[He] was very pretty. Beautiful, actually: his hair cut and permed in tight little curls around that fallen-angel’s face.… David was a very startling, sexy, unusual and powerful young man.”
David and Angela slept together that night. “He was a right stud,” she told author Henry Edwards. “A stallion. He could poke a hole in the wall.” Angela knew that she wanted him, but she also knew that he slept with other people, including men. One night, when the theatrical and sometimes jealous Angela threw herself down a staircase, David stepped over her on his way to the door, and said, “Well, when you feel like it, and if you’re not dead, call me.”
Bowie would tell Angela that he didn’t love her, even as he later married her and they had a son together, Duncan Zowie Haywood Jones, born May 1971 — But for years, he couldn’t do without her instincts — she pushed him to go further in his art and in his boldness. She believes she radicalized Bowie — if not politically, certainly in sexual ways that had cultural ramifications. Tony Visconti, a producer and occasional bassist for Bowie during this period, later told David Buckley, in Strange Fascination, “She…gave great support to David at a time when he was beginning to grow in confidence as a performer.”
Most crucially, Angela was of support to Bowie when his father died of pneumonia in August 1969. Peggy had chosen to nurse her husband during his illness, and called for medical help too late. “In the end, John Jones had asphyxiated alone in an upstairs room,” Angela wrote, “trying to get to an oxygen tank just out of his reach.” David resented his mother more than ever; he didn’t want to take care of her, Angela said. Peggy, for her part, could no longer handle having Terry in her home. She placed him in Cane Hill, a hospital for severe mental illness, and she couldn’t bear visiting him. David and Angela welcomed Terry at their home during his releases from Cane Hill, but David would grow more distant from his half brother. He still loved him, but his fear of proximity to schizophrenia was too great.
Just before his father’s death, the song that became Bowie’s first major hit, “Space Oddity,” was released. It was a haunting vignette of a man lost in space, left to his own uncertainty — a portrayal of Bowie’s psychic disconnection, but also of how the ideals and hopes of the 1960s were fading out. Around that same time, David and Angela settled into Haddon Hall, a Victorian house with Gothic windows. It became the birthplace of David Bowie’s legend, and it was an attempt to forge new ways of life. (Visconti, who lived there for a time with other musicians, recalled that David and Angela sometimes brought home dates together from the clubs. “I have no idea what went on in their bedroom,” he told David Buckley, “except we used to be wide awake in our bedroom hearing all the laughter and screams emanating from theirs.”)
It was while living in Haddon Hall, in March 1970, that David and Angela married. The night before the ceremony, they shared sex with a mutual friend. The next day, David was surprised to see his mother show up at the tiny wedding. He had told her nothing about the occasion. She insisted on signing the register as her son’s witness and posing for photos. Angela claimed she didn’t expect the marriage to be lastingly romantic, but, she writes, “I certainly didn’t want my partner to come in the form of an incorrigibly promiscuous, self-obsessed young starlet with a mother out of a nightmare.” David would later say that the experience of being married to Angela was “like living with a blowtorch.” It was perhaps a miracle that in the next few years he did so much that was so good for so many.
In 1970, Bowie recorded “The Man Who Sold the World” — a story of paranoia and survival, with music that matched the standpoint: blaring and dissonant. Bowie was now working with musicians who helped him make an adventurous soundscape. “I breathed in the excitement of knowing that we had a unit that would really start fires,” he wrote later. Guitarist Mick Ronson, in particular, gave Bowie’s songs a dynamic majesty that became crucial to what was about to take place. “You believed every note had been wrenched from his soul,” Bowie said.
When things came together, it all happened fast, like something inexorable. The albums in that period, from 1971 to 1974 — Hunky Dory, Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, Aladdin Sane and Diamond Dogs — amount to one of the grand epics of rock & roll: a chronicle about the fall of worlds within and without — the disintegration of ego and of society; and about hard-won new values that may or may not be salvation. Most obviously, though, the albums were about sexual realizations that popular culture had never permitted before. Sexual expression in rock & roll had provoked outrage for many social moralists since the 1950s, but it was nonetheless a conventional sexuality being talked about: the lust, romance and heartbreak between men and women. The territory began to change when the Beatles popularized long hair for young men in the early 1960s. As hair length progressed, it provoked public derision, even hostility; to some, it suggested a disturbing feminization of men.
Bowie had already tapped into the concern about feminine masculinity as early as 1964, when he appeared on BBC Tonight as the founder of the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Longhaired Men, with a cohort of other longhaired young men. “For the last two years, we’ve heard comments like ‘Darling’ and ‘Can I carry your handbag?’ thrown at us,” David said. “And I think it just has to stop now.” But David Jones was smiling when he said all of this. He knew, with his Brian Jones-style hair, that his appearance conveyed an ambiguity: His was a beautiful face, and body, that both women and men might be attracted to.
Now, by the early 1970s, more was allowable — homosexuality had been decriminalized in Britain in 1967 — and Angela pushed her husband to make more daring use of his androgynous appeal. She helped him select long, silk men’s dresses — like medieval princes’ frocks, made by Michael Fish, who had also designed clothing for the Rolling Stones — and to wear them at photo sessions for magazines. Combined with Mick Jagger’s suggestive manner in the Rolling Stones’ live shows, and with Bowie’s friend Marc Bolan, from T. Rex, splashing sparkles on his face and wearing sequins for a BBC performance, Bowie’s androgyny signaled that changes were coming. Glitter rock had been born, and at its best, it wasn’t just about music and style; rather, it was about a radical new mode of liberation. “We were giving permission to ourselves,” Bowie later wrote, “to reinvent culture the way we wanted it. With great big shoes.”
Bowie was finally ready to shatter boundaries. He dismissed Ken Pitt — Angela thought Pitt’s ideas were antiquated — and instead hired Tony DeFries, whose promise to make Bowie a star brought him to tears. Bowie’s next move, the album Hunky Dory, from 1971, staked his bid for all-or-nothing transfiguration. The cover showed him in a hand-tinted portrait, gazing upward, his long blond hair pulled back in the fashion of a 1940s actress, such as Lauren Bacall or Marlene Dietrich. The music itself was irresistibly tuneful, apparent from the opening piano lines (played by Rick Wakeman) on “Changes,” a song that was a declaration of independence and daring, for both Bowie and the audience he would define.
Bowie had recently started writing on keyboards, and he was inspired by the structural and melodic possibilities that the instrument afforded him. “I forced myself to become a good songwriter,” he later said. How far he had come — in all regards — was evident in a performance of Hunky Dory‘s “Queen Bitch,” with the Spiders From Mars, in a 1972 British TV broadcast of The Old Grey Whistle Test. Dressed in tall red boots and an unzipped fatigue suit, Bowie was riveting as he delivered a Velvet Underground-inflected rave-up sung in the voice of one man waiting in his abject hotel room for another man to show, until his jealousy turns him sick. It was a staggeringly bold moment — a manifesto of a forbidden viewpoint — and Bowie delivered it with unflinching self-assurance.
Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, from 1972, followed Hunky Dory so closely that the two seem of a piece. Both works are faultless — in effect, they form one of the best double albums ever made. Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, though, was a story — or at least the suggestion of one: the tale of an alien who fell to Earth, and who lost everything but a legacy. Bowie took bits of Ziggy from various places. He drew inspiration for the character’s name, he later said, from a Lubbock, Texas, psychobilly singer, the Legendary Stardust Cowboy. He also had in mind Vince Taylor, an incredibly thin, sexy and damaged rock & roll singer from the early 1960s, who enjoyed some success in France, but became delusional on hallucinogens, once declaring to an audience that he was a messenger of Christ. “I met him a few times in the mid-Sixties,” Bowie later said. “The guy was not playing with a full deck at all.”
Another source was Gene Vincent, whose 1956 hit “Be-Bop-a-Lula” had exemplified rockabilly, and whose leg was injured in the famous 1960 car accident that left Eddie Cochran dead. Bowie played some of his new Hunky Dory and Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars songs with Vincent, for a demo. He’d once seen Vincent in concert, wearing a leg brace. “He had to shove his injured leg out behind him to, what I thought, great theatrical effect,” Bowie later wrote. “This rock stance became position number one for the embryonic Ziggy.” Most important, Bowie borrowed from the examples of Lou Reed, from the Velvet Underground, and Iggy Pop, from the Stooges: Both made influential music that stood apart from prevalent values but were devastated by the disregard of critics and the public.
What Bowie made of these sources was all his – something unprecedented and liberating. Whereas Hunky Dory began with the hope of “Changes,” and ended in the brokenness of “The Bewlay Brothers” (a song that appears to be about his half brother, Terry), Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars reversed that movement. The album’s opening track, the spellbinding “Five Years,” described the horrible moments after a group of people learn the news that the Earth will die in a few years: “A girl my age went off her head, hit some tiny children/If the black hadn’t a-pulled her off, I think she would have killed them.” Ten songs later, after all the vain messiahs have come and gone, Bowie pulled off a sneak act of redemption, by trying to comfort a single soul in “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide”: “You’re not alone.…No matter what or who you’ve been/No matter when or where you’ve seen/All the knives seem to lacerate your brain/I’ve had my share, I’ll help you with the pain/You’re not alone.”
The song — the whole album, in fact — was Bowie’s way of talking to an audience that he knew instinctively, but hadn’t even acquired: outsiders who felt depressed and lost, wasted by their own despair or by the world’s unkindness. In Moonage Daydream, Bowie wrote, “Overall, there was a distinct feeling that ‘nothing was true’ anymore and that the future was not as clear-cut as it had seemed.… Therefore, everything was up for grabs. If we needed any truths we could construct them ourselves.” When Bowie performed “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide” live, he extended his reach to those people, as he sang, “Give me your hands, because you’re wonderful/Oh, give me your hands.” It was a loving moment, and a political one: It was the offering of unashamed embrace and encouragement. Quite a gesture for a man who denied he had warmth inside him.
David Bowie became a star like no other. His albums sold at a faster rate than that of any music artist in Britain since the Beatles, and his concerts with the Spiders From Mars became prized and legendary events. Nobody had ever looked like Bowie did — a skeletal face riven with audacious lightning bolts, penetrating eyes that didn’t match in color. Nobody moved like him, with impossible grace at moments, then in jerky, bent, almost inhuman angles at others. Nobody wore the clothes he wore, princely yet feminine robes, tight pants that presented his sex as the center of his being, as the focus of the stage.
Bowie would claim that he intended Ziggy Stardust as only a theatrical creation, “but I play that character right down the line.” When, during a June 1972 Oxford Town Hall show, Bowie sank to his knees before Mick Ronson, wrapped his hands behind the guitarist’s ass and pulled Ronson and his guitar to his mouth — in a mime of oral sex — the effect was titanic. The moment (which was a surprise to Ronson) was caught by camera and printed in the music papers. Bowie immediately worried that he had gone too far. At the same time, he extended the risks offstage. In his most famous interview, in Melody Maker, in 1972, he spontaneously announced, “I’m gay — and always have been, even when I was David Jones.”
Later, he worried: Had what he said destroyed his chances of being accepted in America? In truth, Bowie was bisexual — and being married, with a child, probably made his statement more provocative and puzzling. In 1983, he would tell Kurt Loder, in ROLLING STONE, that saying he was bisexual “was the biggest mistake I ever made.” Critic John Gill thought that Bowie had used and betrayed gay culture, but also admitted that he had emboldened many people to be more open about their sexuality. Singer Tom Robinson said, “For gay musicians, Bowie was seismic. To hell with whether he disowned us later.”
Bowie and the Spiders From Mars — bassist Trevor Bolder, drummer Woody Woodmansey and guitarist Ronson — toured incessantly for 18 months in 1972 and 1973. In Fred and Judy Vermorel’s 1985 Starlust: Secret Life of Fans, a member of the audience told the authors, “A lot of men were throwing off their underwear and showing their cocks all over the place. A lot of fluid was flying about. One girl was actually sucking someone at the same time as trying to listen to what was going on. I thought it was extraordinary because nobody had any inhibitions.” Mike Garson, who later played piano with Bowie for years, told David Buckley, “I heard all those stories about what was going on in the audience and I tend to believe them. I remember seeing crazy stuff.”
That night at the Hammersmith Odeon in 1973 was the last fling. “I really did want it all to come to an end,” Bowie wrote in Moonage Daydream. “I was now writing for a different kind of project and exhausted and completely bored with the whole Ziggy concept, couldn’t keep my attention on the performance.… I was wasted and miserable.” At the concert’s end, before the encore performance of “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide,” Bowie addressed the crowd. “Not only is this the last show of the tour,” he said, “but it is the last show we’ll ever do. Bye-bye. We love you.” The audience was stunned. So were the Spiders From Mars. David Bowie had abandoned his alter ego and fired his band in the same moment, in public. It was an example of Bowie’s fabled ability to cut off relationships, to move past them as he tried to move past himself. Angela claimed to be surprised as well. She said that after the event, she was “persona non grata.” David never confided in her, or collaborated with her, in quite the same ways.
Ziggy Stardust beleaguered Bowie for a long time. It became what he thought he had to live down, or surpass. He hoped he could relinquish the character yet hold on to the growing audience that the image had won for him. But Aladdin Sane and Diamond Dogs were essentially continuations: The music got deeper, riskier, more complicated, meaner; the viewpoint, more toxic. But it was still the world and character of Ziggy Stardust.
In 1974, Bowie launched an elaborate tour of North America. This time, musicians were relegated behind a screen, unseen, as Bowie commanded the stage with brilliant choreography and cumbersome props, such as a cherry-picker crane that malfunctioned once, leaving him suspended far above an arena floor for many minutes. His singing was, if anything, better — he had astonishing range and control — but he grew bored with the tour midway through. He wanted to revise his sound, to make it soulful and funky. He brought in guitarist Carlos Alomar, who had worked at Harlem’s Anollo Theater and had played with James Brown, and he recruited Luther Vandross to arrange backing vocals. He met John Lennon, and the two wrote and recorded “Fame,” for Bowie’s 1975 Young Americans. The song and album were Bowie’s first massive hits in the U.S.
Bowie also developed an obsession with cocaine during this period, and it took him into frenzy, delusion and terror. He lived for a time in a Manhattan town house, but after a tense conflict there one night with Jimmy Page, Bowie believed that the Led Zeppelin guitarist — who owned the English home of late black-magic philosopher Aleister Crowley — had put his soul in peril. He moved to Los Angeles and continued to disintegrate, staying up for days without sleep, sustaining himself on a diet of milk, peppers and cocaine, studying occult literature and practices.
He phoned Angela in London, asking for her help: Witches intended for him to impregnate one during Walpurgis Night. He later said Satan was living in his indoor swimming pool. David needed an exorcism (“I really walked into other worlds,” he later said), and Angela got him one — though it was by way of a long-distance phone call. “David was never insane,” Angela wrote. “The really crazy stuff coincided precisely with his ingestion of enormous amounts of cocaine, alcohol and whatever other drugs.” In any event, the rite may have helped break Bowie’s fear of a fiend possessing him. “It was time to get out of this terrible lifestyle I’d put myself into, and get healthy,” he later said. “It was time to pull myself together.”
In late 1976, following a suggestion by writer Christopher Isherwood, Bowie moved to West Berlin, with his friend Iggy Pop. For a time the retreat only relocated Bowie’s troubles. He became a heavy drinker. He threw up in alleys at night. He reportedly called out to people, “Please help me.” He also did worse: He became intrigued by Third Reich history and Nazi mythology. He had said years earlier in an interview, “I believe very strongly in fascism.” In 1974 he told Playboy, “Adolf Hitler was one of the first rock stars. Look at some of the films and see how he moved. I think he was quite as good as Jagger.” In Strange Fascination, Buckley reports that customs officers detained Bowie at the Russian-Polish border in April 1976, and seized a collection of Nazi memorabilia. When an assistant later criticized him for his interest, Bowie grew infuriated. “Fuck you,” he said. “I changed the world! Kiss my arse” — then broke down and cried.
The worst moment came in 1976, when Bowie arrived in an open-top Mercedes- Benz convertible at London’s Victoria Station and was photographed giving what some people wrongly thought was a Nazi salute. The reaction in England was furious. Bowie was sickened when he saw the photo. “I’m NOT a fascist…,” he told Melody Maker in October 1977. “That didn’t happen.… I just WAVED.… On the life of my child, I waved.”
The longer Bowie stayed in Berlin, the more he came to understand the ruin that fascism had done to Germany and Europe. He was repelled by nationalists and racists, and was horrified to see his name made into a swastika in graffiti. He later called his interests “ghastly,” and said he had been coming out of a year of terrible duress. “I was out of my mind, totally, completely crazed.”
Yet Bowie still made exceptional music in the post-Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars years. The title track of Station to Station (1976) sounded like a battle for the soul between a locked-down, authoritarian structure and raging, anarchic guitars. With 1977’s Low — recorded with the input of avant-gardist and former Roxy Music keyboardist Brian Eno — Bowie devised a new language of music from fragments, accidents and dreamed-up textures. At first Bowie’s label, RCA, did not want to release Low; however, along with Heroes from that same year, the album went on to inspire a generation — or more — of new artists, from Joy Division to Trent Reznor, and proved Bowie’s most sonically influential work.
He still moved on. He left manager Tony DeFries in 1975, and he divorced Angela in 1977. The marriage had begun to strain in the days after their son, Duncan, was born, in 1971. Traumatized by the birth, and making little claim to maternal instinct, Angela left on vacation to Italy a few days later, with a friend. The behavior may have reminded Bowie too much of his mother — a breach of faith, an abandonment of a child. In the period prior to the divorce, Angela attempted suicide more than once, and tried to humiliate David in the press. “I really want David to suffer,” she said. She no doubt took too much credit for Bowie’s fame and success, and he probably gave her too little recognition in return. David won sole custody of Duncan, who in later years rarely communicated with his mother. David, though, proved a wonderful father with time. The calling helped mend him. Bowie remarried in April 1992, to fashion model Iman. He was still subject to instances of depression, but he’d also found steadiness and solace. “Without Iman,” he told a friend, “I’d have put my head in the oven by now.” Bowie and Iman have a daughter, Alexandria, born in August 2000.
In 1983, after a three-year absence from recording popular music, Bowie moved to a new label, EMI, and made the biggest album of his career, Let’s Dance. He also embarked on the first of several spectacular worldwide tours. He was a global superstar now. He had remade himself. There was, at long last, no room for Ziggy Stardust on his stage.
During that period, he briefly mentioned his half brother, Terry, during an interview. “It is my fault we grew apart,” he said, “and it is painful.” Terry had tried to kill himself the year before by falling from a window of the facility where he was confined. According to Christopher Sandford, in Bowie: Loving the Alien, Bowie saw his brother soon after — their first visit in 10 years — and brought him books, clothes and his own music. Terry expected Bowie to return — he told his nurses that his brother would save him — but the two never saw each other again. On December 27th, 1984, Terry left the Cane Hill psychiatric hospital, went to a nearby train station and laid his head on the tracks. At the last moment, he pulled his head away from harm. He also tried to take an overdose of sleeping pills that day, and demanded to be taken to his mother’s home, “where David would be waiting.” The next month, on January 16th, he left Cane Hill again and went back to the train station, and once more put his head on the tracks. It was the last thing Terry Burns ever did. He was 47. Bowie did not attend his funeral, but he sent a card and roses. The card read, “You’ve seen more things than we can imagine, but all these moments will be lost, like tears washed away by the rain. God bless you. ——David.”
Bowie’s later work never really transcended his early-1970s inventions. Pop artists don’t often get an opportunity to change the world more than once, how things look and sound, and to change what’s allowed, how power and authority lose some sanctity. David Bowie did that more effectively than most. Whether he ever truly resented rock & roll or not, he used it for what rock & roll does best: To give voice to those who had been without it. Most memorably, he did it for people who rock & roll itself hadn’t altogether welcomed — people who perhaps weren’t yet sure who they were or would be allowed to be. He helped them clarify themselves; he gave them permission and encouragement to figure out their identity without shame, to exhibit pleasure in themselves and in one another. He reached out and told them, “Give me your hands, because you’re wonderful/Oh, give me your hands.”
The measure of Bowie’s success isn’t whether or not he could remake himself and move on. The measure is that he helped others to proclaim identities that they had once been shamed, or intimidated, into denying. Ziggy Stardust proved to be a deliverer, but David Bowie proved to be the man who delivered him.